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Family still gathering information about reason for teacher's suicide, brother tells radio station

September 29, 2010 |  5:25 pm

The brother of a popular fifth-grade teacher at Miramonte Elementary School who committed suicide in the Angeles National Forest told a radio host Wednesday that the family was still gathering information about the possible reasons.

The L.A. teachers' union has said it learned from Rigoberto Ruelas' family that the teacher was depressed about his score in a teacher-rating database posted by The Times on the Internet.

In a phone call to KPCC radio’s "AirTalk" show Wednesday, Ruelas’ brother, Alejandro, was highly critical of The Times for posting the information.

“It’s not fair,” said Ruelas, who has declined to talk to The Times since his brother's death. “He’s a teacher. He’s not a mayor, he’s not the president. He’s not a public worker.”

But when asked by radio host Larry Mantle what his brother had said about the scores, Ruelas indicated that was not the kind of subject he discussed with his family.

“Being the strong person that he is, he would rather be teaching us something,” Ruelas said. “If he’s taking you out, he’ll take you out to camping trips, he’ll take you out to snowboarding.... I don’t know if he felt he didn’t want to burden anybody.”

The newspaper analyzed seven years of student test scores in English and math to determine how much students' performance improved under about 6,000 third- through fifth-grade teachers. Based on The Times' findings, Ruelas was rated "average" in his ability to raise students' English scores and "less effective" in his ability to raise math scores. Overall, he was rated slightly "less effective" than his peers.

Alejandro Ruelas said he was not aware of any personal problems in his brother’s life. Asked whether he believed that his brother took his life out of frustration with the scores, Ruelas said the family was meeting with teachers to better understand his work environment.

“The little feedback that we are getting right now is that that school wasn’t the healthiest place to be working,” Ruelas said. “The people who are supposed to be helping them as far as administrators, principals are using this kind of scores also to bully and harass.

"That really hits you hard,” Ruelas said. “Especially Rigo, being the hard worker. He took his job seriously.”

The teacher had a near-perfect attendance record, so colleagues were alarmed when he did not show up for work last week. His body was found Sunday in a ravine in the Big Tujunga Canyon area, about 100 feet below a bridge.

The teacher’s death stunned staff, students and parents at Miramonte, who described him as a dedicated educator who reached out to struggling students, visited their homes and inspired them to aim for college. Many were expected to attend a memorial Mass on Wednesday at 5 p.m. at Presentation Catholic Church in South L.A.

Some colleagues said that Ruelas had appeared downcast and distracted since his scores were posted.

“He taught the toughest kids,” said Mathew Taylor, the south area chairman for United Teachers Los Angeles. “These are the students that don’t show the biggest gains in test scores. But here The Times comes out and publishes these scores and publicly humiliated him.”

Taylor alleged that some teachers had been summoned to Principal Martin Sandoval’s office to discuss their scores on The Times' database. Asked about the accusation Monday, Sandoval said “absolutely not.” He said he gave “little credence” to the method used by The Times and had reminded staff on more than one occasion that the school district has its own system for evaluating teachers.

District Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said he looked into the allegations against Sandoval and found no evidence they were true. He praised Sandoval’s leadership and said teachers across the district were under enormous pressure.

“Teachers have made so many sacrifices; the pay cut from the unpaid furlough days, the larger classes, the shrinking resources; the uncertainty about the future,” Cortines said in a statement marking Ruelas’ death. “In fact, all of our employees have been hurt by the budget cuts imposed on this district by the state. And, yet, they continue to put students first.”

-- Alexandra Zavis